It must be a lonely feeling sometimes, being a classic-rock band in 2020. More and more of your earlier contemporaries are either broken up, entering the nostalgia circuit, or periodically popping up to snag some of that reunion tour money. The bands that sound the most akin to you are relegated to local suburban bands in neighborhood bars. Pearl Jam are arguably one of the final avatars of an older era, one in which popular music was conveyed via a standard rock lineup and a required air of gritty authenticity. Like their fellow earnest travelers in U2, they’re almost an anachronism, the exception that proves the rule: Times have changed.
And on Gigaton, the band’s long-simmering new record, the Pearl Jam sound has changed a bit as well. It’s been six and a half years since the group’s last album Lightning Bolt delivered an uneven admixture of spiky punk throwbacks and easygoing AOR, and the intervening years saw the members embark on a variety of solo projects and side gigs. Some of those disparate ventures must have rubbed off on the group, because there’s a broad expanse of influences, sounds, and instruments at work here. This is the sound of a band working hard to evolve, and if the strain of incorporating such a large swath of musical experimentation occasionally shows, well, maybe that’s the cost of attempting new tricks at an advanced age.
Never let it be said that the band embraced different sounds at the expense of its tried-and-true formulas, however. Part of what makes Gigaton fascinating is the way these sonic departures actually fuse in unexpected ways with some of the band’s traditional four-on-the-floor stompers. Alternating between classic guitar riffage, sputtering ’80s-style new wave, epic layers of vocal collage, and awkward fusions of the three, the record tries to be all things to all people, a crowd-pleasing delivery of rock ’n’ roll interwoven with art-damaged aspirations of something more, akin at times to the group’s landmark Vitalogy. It sometimes fails, but longtime Pearl Jam fans know better than to expect a steady consistency of quality across an entire album. If some of the band’s ’90s output can make the case for being front-to-back masterpieces, the 21st century has demonstrated that every subsequent album contains at least one or two duds. It’s a small price to pay to enjoy such a longstanding creatively relevant act.
The unlikely synthesis of styles might be best embodied by “Retrograde,” the penultimate track on the record, with music credited to guitarist Mike McCready. Starting with a flourish of a guitar strum, it begins gently enough, with some very Zeppelin-esque guitar work contained in the acoustic sounds undergirding Vedder’s soulful warble. It fits neatly into the Pearl Jam canon of easygoing back-half-of-the-record offerings. Then with two minutes remaining, it opens up into an expansive combination of layered vocal harmonies, finger-picking melodicism, and frenetic drum workouts, like a combination of The Who and Pink Floyd, a complex fusion of electronic and organic sounds. It’s still recognizably Pearl Jam, but harboring just enough different instrumentation and arrangement to feel like something new.
The album’s other experiments are jarring enough. Much has been made already of the very un-Pearl Jam-like style of lead single, “Dance Of The Clairvoyants,” and it’s far and away the most idiosyncratic offering on Gigaton. With its effected drums, world music bass licks, and near-chanted lyrical phrases, it sounds more like David Byrne fronting Duran Duran than a Pearl Jam song. Lyrically, it’s uneven, with some of Vedder’s more evocative turns of phrase (“Numbers keep falling off the calendar’s floor”) wedded to some truly hoary clunkers (“I’m in love with clairvoyants ’cuz they’re out of this world”). But musically, the change-up of styles (and change-up of musicianship, with multiple members trading instruments on the track) works.
The track immediately following, “Quick Escape,” abruptly pivots in the other direction. It’s a jagged post-punk squall of guitar and methodical, shuffling drums. Distorted and rumbling, with a narrative about traveling all the way to Mars to “find a place Trump hasn’t fucked up yet,” it’s the noisiest moment on the album, though Jeff Ament’s reliable bass work keeps it tethered to the steady grooves that surround it (not surprising, given he’s the credited songwriter), his melodic and pulsing rhythms mirroring the evocative journey sketched out in Vedder’s lyrics.
Gigaton stands out in comparison to several more recent Pearl Jam albums due to the improved ratio of hits to misses on the back half. “Seven O’Clock,” a midtempo anthem that serves as the record’s centerpiece, begins with a stately drumbeat and a gently jangling guitar sound familiar from the band’s catalogue of more upbeat Americana tracks, from No Code’s “Off He Goes” to more recent feel-good offerings like “Speed Of Sound” from 2009’s Backspacer. As the chorus kicks in, a wash of swooning synths breaks over the proceedings, as everything from phasers to Peter Gabriel-like vocal effects are unleashed over a deconstructed drum beat. Another Vedder manifesto to enlightenment, as he insists “this fucked-up situation calls for all hands on deck,” the song retains the soaring vibe of similar “don’t let the bastards grind you down” tracks like Backspacer’s “Amongst The Waves,” even if the singer can’t help falling back into sniping at the idiot-in-chief. (“Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse come forged the North and West / Then there’s Sitting Bullshit as our current president.”)
From there on out, the experimentation mostly subsides or gets folded into Pearl Jam doing its rock ’n’ roll thing, only with more consistency and a greater sense of ambition. “Never Destination” leaps right back into the churning alternarock fray, with classic riffs and a driving beat that make it a welcome addition to the “fun-and-angry PJ songs” canon. (Weirdly, it also makes time to shout out Sean Penn’s execrable Bob Honey character, probably the only song that has ever or will ever do so.) “Take The Long Way,” penned by drummer Matt Cameron, blends the band’s occasional forays into ’70s punk with almost cock-rock riffing, like a Night Ranger song stumbled into the room and got swallowed up by the band. Stone Gossard concoction “Buckle Up” is a 3/4 amble driven by a slick guitar lick and buttressed by some unusual instrumentation (is that a kazoo at the halfway point?) and Ament on the keys.
It wouldn’t be a Pearl Jam record without an acoustic song from Eddie, and Gigaton delivers a grand one, bittersweet and downcast. A troubled elegy to failing human connection, “Comes Then Goes” is not unlike the quieter sequences from Vedder’s Into The Wild soundtrack, a ballad with more muscular chords and his genteel delivery masking the darker bite of lyrics like, “Like you, I keep it in / thought you found a game you could win / it’s all vivisection in the end.” The counterpoint to the traditionalist arena rock of the second track “Superblood Wolfmoon”—which sounds as though it could’ve been on any of the band’s albums over the past 20 years—the track brings a melancholy rare to the record as a whole.
By the time “River Cross,” the album closer, begins its pump organ soundscape and Matt Cameron’s toms enact a thundering but distant tribal beat, the sonic meanderings of the record have returned to one of Vedder’s favorite themes: Longing sparked by the beauty of nature, and our insignificance in the face of earthly wonder. Despite the oddly punchy bass melody and use of kalimba (a metallic African thumb piano), it feels like paradigmatic Pearl Jam. Much like the rest of Gigaton, any bells and whistles in service of musical exploration end up coming back to the inevitable classic rock stylings that have been the group’s mainstay throughout its career. It’s a shame it took almost seven years for the group to again find its muse; to paraphrase David Foster Wallace (fitting for an album that so often name-checks literature), no matter the experiments the band took to get to this place, Pearl Jam of course ended up becoming itself.